Irish Premier League
Linfield Scorers :
Mark Stafford 14', Shayne Lavery 57', Joel Cooper 84'
Crusaders Scorer :
Ben Kennedy 46'
Linfield Team :
Chris Johns (GK), Mark Haughey, Jimmy Callacher, Mark Stafford, Niall Quinn, Stephen Fallon, Jamie Mulgrew ©, Kirk Millar, Jordan Stewart (Cammy Palmer 71’), Joel Cooper, Shayne Lavery (Andy Waterworth 86’)
Linfield Subs not used :
Alex Moore, Matthew Clarke, Conor Pepper, Navid Nasseri, Christy Manzinga
Crusaders Team :
Jonathan Tuffey (GK), Jordan Forsythe, Billy Joe Burns, Daniel Larmour, Michael Ruddy (Jarlath O’Rourke 83’), Ross Clarke, Declan Caddell (Gary Thompson 73’), Ben Kennedy, David Cushley, Andrew Clarke, Jordan Owens (Adam Lecky 73’)
Linfield virtually moved within a point of securing what would be a 55th Irish League title when they recorded a hard-fought victory over Crusaders at Windsor Park this evening.
The Blues took the lead on 14 minutes and it was quite ironic that it came from Mark Stafford who hadn’t played for around six weeks prior to Saturday. The big defender has been a formidable threat at set-plays over the years and he proved he hadn’t lost that knack when Kirk Millar whipped a corner to the far post, with Stafford storming in to volley the ball in from close range. It was his first goal of the season but he’d previously have been wondering if he was cursed in front of goal, having drawn wonder saves from Artur Boruc (Legia Warsaw) and Aaron McCarey (Cliftonville) earlier this season, as well as striking the woodwork against Portadown. It’s his first goal since January 2020, surprisingly.
Crusaders should have equalised within a minute or two after the opener when David Cushley put a cross in and Jimmy Callacher at full stretch couldn’t get enough contact to hook it clear and it fell for Jordan Owens in a central position just yards, but Crusaders’ talisman somehow fired over with the goal at his mercy.
Another golden opportunity came Crusaders’ way on 21 minutes when Stephen Baxter’s men worked a short corner for Ross Clarke to put in a good cross and David Cushley headed just over when he should have found the net.
The Crues certainly had the better of the chances in the first half but couldn’t make them pay. Joel Cooper looked dangerous for The Blues, as did Kirk Millar and his set-piece deliveries as Jonny Tuffey just about clawed one behind from under his crossbar.
Half Time: Linfield 1 – 0 Crusaders
The start to the second half was exactly what Linfield didn’t want but it was deserved when Crusaders levelled a minute in. The Blues will be disappointed with the manner of the goal conceded as a corner from David Cushley wasn’t dealt with and Ben Kennedy fired in Crusaders’ equaliser from close range.
The Crues almost got their noses in front ten minutes later when impressive young forward Andrew Clarke turned smartly and fired a 20 yard shot just wide of the far post on his first start for Crusaders.
Then the Blues struck on 57 minutes to retake the lead. Niall Quinn whipped in a deep corner and Mark Stafford ghosted into space at the back post to meet it, volleying the ball back into the goalmouth area where Shayne Lavery was on hand to clinically dispatch a header past Jonathan Tuffey.
A superb move almost brought Linfield a third minutes later. Cooper dribbled infield, popping the ball off to Shayne Lavery and he fed the overlapping run of Niall Quinn who then found the bursting run of Stephen Fallon into the box, but the midfielder’s low shot was deflected agonisingly wide from close range.
Another goal could have made the closing stages more comfortable and it almost arrived courtesy of another nice move. Mark Haughey teed up Kirk Millar to cross with a neat touch and Millar’s cross was excellently whipped across the near post for Lavery to come in full steam at full pelt but he fired wide.
But then the victory was all but secured six minutes from time. It was a somewhat strange goal but again, well-constructed play. Mark Haughey lifted a nice ball into the right channel for the darting run of substitute Cammy Palmer who put a cross in and with Joel Cooper and Jordan Forsythe jostling for the ball, it seemed to hit one of them on the shoulder area and nestled in the corner past Tuffey. Joel Cooper will take the acclaim on what was his 100th Linfield appearance.
It was a good game of football and now David Healy’s men know that if they avoid defeat against Larne at Windsor Park on Saturday May 15 they will virtually be champions unless there was to be the most unlikely of swings in goal difference. Linfield's goal difference is significantly superior than second place Coleraine's. A win over Larne would officially seal it. First and foremost, though, attention turns to the Irish Cup game at home to Dungannon Swifts this Saturday.
Full Time: Linfield 3 – 1 Crusaders
LinfieldFC.com Man of the Match: Mark Stafford